Travelling to New Orleans, now and in 1858
Eating and drinking
William Makepeace Thackeray recently declared New Orleans to be “the city of the world where you can eat and drink the most and suffer the least”. The city certainly offers something to delight the palate of any epicure. Restaurants abound, and the city’s cuisine, though clearly shaped by its French past, incorporates influences from all its diverse inhabitants. Try the gumbo – a local soup, nationally famous; sample a “cocktail”; and do your best to get a table at Antoine’s (established in 1840).
While New Orleans is a walking city, no visitor should leave without taking the famed carriage drive along the Shell Road to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Similarly, visitors must board one of the city’s street railways and take a ride along St Charles Avenue, through the mansion-filled Garden District.
You should be aware, however, that the political situation in America remains unstable. The national division over slavery becomes increasingly bitter, and talk that the southern states might secede from the Union no longer seems frivolous. If secession and war do come to pass, then New Orleans, a place of tactical importance, will be a focus for military action. So make your visit now, to catch the Southern Queen in all her glory.
Visiting New Orleans today
In some ways, not much has changed in New Orleans. The French Quarter is still the Big Easy’s distinctive heart and opportunities to eat and drink well abound. New Orleans certainly dances to a different beat from other American cities, and the sound of zydeco, Louisiana Creole folk music, continues to waft through the streets, even if it’s joined by jazz, funk, indie and punk today.
Nightlife is a big draw, whether boozing on Bourbon Street or spilling out of a live music joint in the small hours. Mardi Gras is a spectacular reaffirmation of the city though there’s a year-round festival calendar to complement the carnival.
In other ways, New Orleans has had to reinvent itself time and again. It’s hard to write about the city without mentioning that least welcome of visitors, Hurricane Katrina, who smashed up much of the city in 2005. But visitors won’t find a city feeling sorry for itself. The fortunes of New Orleans, like the Saints, its much beloved gridiron team, have risen again. And while areas like Fauborg-Marigny and the Garden District are full of heritage buildings, there’s a keen sense of energy and revival about the city too.
Safe, friendly and exciting, New Orleans is still an unmissable and unique part of America’s past, present and future.
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Thomas Ruys Smith is the author of Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century, published by Continuum June 2011.